Hereditary members of the Society of the Cincinnati are qualified male descendants of commissioned officers who served in the Continental Army or Navy, or of officers of the French royal forces who served in America during the Revolutionary War. Each member is admitted to one of the fourteen constituent societies (representing the original thirteen states and France) established in 1783. Most American hereditary members belong to the constituent society of which their ancestors were members or the constituent society in the state in which their ancestors’ military units were organized.
The basic qualifications of membership are defined in the Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati, adopted in 1783. The Institution provided for the admission of commissioned officers in Continental service who had served to the end of the war and those who had resigned with honor after a minimum of three years’ service as a commissioned officer. The Institution also provided for the admission of commissioned officers who had been separated from the army in a reorganization involving the merging of two or more units. The contemporary term for this was “derangement.” In addition, the Institution offered membership to the admirals and commanders of the French navy and the generals and colonels of the French army to perpetuate “the friendships which have been formed and so happily subsisted between the Officers of the Allied Forces in the prosecution of the war.”
The authors of the Institution provided for the admission of the “eldest male posterity” of each original member after the member’s death. If an officer had no son, the Institution provided for the admission of “the collateral branches, who may be judged worthy of becoming its supporters and members.” The Institution also allowed for the admission of “the eldest male branches” of officers who had died in service on the same basis as the children of members.
Until 1854, hereditary membership was restricted to descendants of original members and officers who died in battle. The descendants and collateral relatives of otherwise eligible officers who did not join the Society at its founding had previously been deemed ineligible. In that year, the Society addressed its declining membership by adopting what has become known as the “Rule of 1854,” which allows for the admission of hereditary representatives of officers who did not join the Society at its founding, but who would have been qualified by rank and length of service.
The Institution provided that each constituent society should “judge of the qualifications of the members who may be proposed” in a manner “consistent with the general maxims of the Cincinnati.” In keeping with this provision, each of the fourteen constituent societies regulates admission according to local and historical circumstances. There is no national—or international—criteria for hereditary membership, beyond the basic criteria established by the Institution: that each hereditary member admitted must be an adult male with a hereditary relationship to an eligible officer of the Revolutionary War. Most constituent societies limit hereditary membership to one current member for each eligible officer.